In my last column, I discussed how Paul Krugman, under the pretense of debunking libertarianism, inadvertently made an argument for anarchy. Krugman argued that you can’t have a genuinely libertarian legal regime, in which corporate bad actors are strictly liable for all damages they cause, because the corporate-bought politicians won’t cooperate. A libertarian legal regime that depends on incorruptible politicians is a non-starter.
But even though Krugman fails to see it, this is an argument for anarchy. If politicians are so corrupt as to protect corporate bad actors against strict liability for the full damages they cause, from what race of angels does he intend to get the politicians who will pass regulatory legislation that will enforce good corporate behavior?
This is really a lesson for libertarians as well. We’ve seen, time and time again, what an uphill battle it is to try to remove special protections and subsidies from big business through the legislative process. It isn’t just an uphill battle. It’s positively sisyphean: that big rock keeps almost reaching the summit, and then rolling all the way back down to the bottom.
Now, with the Rand Paul controversy, we’re seeing the same lesson reinforced from another direction. The media furor over his statements regarding the Civil Rights Act’s treatment of discrimination by private businesses illustrates another unfortunate tendency: the assumption that political action is the only way to stop something bad. The whole discussion has been framed in terms of whether the state should “allow” private businesses to discriminate based on race, with the unspoken premise that answering “yes” means the evil should be unchecked.
As C4SS Director Brad Spangler put it, politics makes you stupid. When libertarians focus primarily on the question of the non-aggression principle, of when force is or is not permissible, they lose sight of all the variety of ways that people will deal with one another in the kind of free society where initiation of force is tolerated from no one.
“You don’t get to talk about the holistic integrity of a stateless society arising from non-violent mechanisms of social normatization that cross the arbitrary topical boundaries one imposes on one’s self when analyzing and advocating various potential state policies…. If we take the political revolution as the abolition of the state, the social revolution has the capacity to continue indefinitely as members of society seek ever greater progressive social change through free speech, free association and other forms of market activity in a society increasingly able to afford it because of an exponential boom in prosperity. Gender issues. Animal rights. Child welfare. Poverty relief. Education. Culture and the arts. Building utopia is a serious project, and abolishing the state is only the first serious step in it.”
If I’d been in Paul’s place as a guest on the Rachel Maddow show, I’d have mentioned the Imolakee Indian Workers’ successful boycotts of assorted fast food chains, and the successes the Wal-Mart Workers’ Association has had picketing local stores with especially bad (even for Wal-Mart) labor practices.
Charles Johnson of the Molinari Institute points to some more relevant examples from the civil rights movement itself. By the time the Civil Rights Act passed, he argues, most of the heavy lifting of desegregating private businesses had already been achieved in the social realm by grass-roots organizing. “[T]he sit-ins demonstrated, without the help of Federal antidiscrimination bureaucrats, that segregation was immoral and socially unsustainable.” The Greensboro Woolworth’s and all the downtown merchants in Nashville were desegregated by the middle of 1960.
The Civil Rights Act only ratified a fait accompli presented by the civil rights movement, a victory already achieved without any help from the state. And the civil rights movement accomplished by changing public consciousness and shifting the terms of debate. It changed what people were willing to accept as legitimate and what they were willing to tolerate.
Sometimes government walks it back a bit and retreats from its former repressive activities. But the best way to get it to do so is not by lobbying it or participating in the legislative process; it’s to appeal to public consciousness and change what people are willing to tolerate. Radley Balko does that every day by reporting the jackbooted SWAT team tactics used to enforce drug prohibition hundreds of times a week. Mike Masnick and the good folks at the Electronic Frontier Foundation do it by reporting on the RIAA’s daily thuggery against file-sharers. The United Farm Workers do it by reporting on hellholes like Giumarra’s grape plantations, where workers are forced to race each other in 100 degree heat to avoid being the “slowest picker” who gets fired that day. And above all, the student activists did it fifty years ago by exposing the public to media images of themselves being beaten and spat upon by thugs, willingly being taken to jail, and braving the firehoses of Bull Connor.